The airport is small. The flight is full. Croatians, conducting business in Zagreb, returning home. A handful of us are tourists. We take our bags and breathe in the sweetly scented air of a blooming Adriatic town.
I’m leaving in November, to go to the States, our driver tells us. He is cheerful, affable. He is also brutally realistic. I cannot make a life here. In the States, I can go out to eat four times a week. Here, we Croats cannot afford the prices that are set for you, the tourists. We can’t even afford to heat our houses.
Were you here during the war?
No, I was lucky, I happened to be in Turkey. Afterwards, there was so much hope, but now I think there is less. Privatization was a disaster. Two hundred corrupt people grabbed everything and got very rich. The rest of us have nothing. We are worse off than when we were part of Yugoslavia. Now they say we wont be ready for the Union until 2009. Me, I am against the Union. European countries, they are all so different! And that is a good thing, I think.
Beautiful views! Can we hike up into the hills?
No, there are no cleared trails and there are still land mines that are dangerous. Out on the islands, you can hike there.
He waves to a little boy out on the road. Big smiles are exchanged, a shout back and forth.
You know everyone here?
I know that little boy. I chose to work in an orphanage instead of going into the army.
You’ll do well in the States. You have a winning personality!
I know I’ll do well. I already have. I worked for Marriot, they want me back!
I’d like to order the lobster and potato salad and then the buzzara (shrimp and mussels steamed in a spicy broth). Oh, and a good Croatian white wine.
The restaurant is on a street filled with outdoor eating places. As we walk to it, others ask us to come into theirs, to sample their foods. Tables tend to be empty at this time of the year.
At the close of the meal, a jug appears at the table.
Grappa, from us. Try some.
You speak English, right? I just wanted to tell you that friends ate here two years ago and told us we must dine here as well. I am so glad we did. You are a terrific cook.
I get many warm kisses for those words. Old, smiling eyes. What have they witnessed in the last two decades? A siege that made no sense. Destruction. Rebuilding, so that indeed, it is, to visitors at least, the pearl of the Adriatic.
The hotel where we are staying served as a shelter during the ten month siege. The roof was blasted away, but the walls remained solid. It was reopened last year, finally, and now it waits, splendid in its sunflower and orange tones. It waits for people who will be charmed by it, people like me, who will sit on the terrace and sip a drink late into the evening and then wake up the next day for a breakfast under the blue skies of a gorgeous May day.